Breads Bakery is perhaps most well known known for its babka, earning New York Magazine’s Best Chocolate Babka award just a few months after opening in 2013 in Union Square, and holding the No. 1 spot ever since. Breads’ challah, particularly the seed-covered, braided wreaths that were initially introduced to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, has also become iconic, so it’s no surprise that it graces the cover of baker and co-owner Uri Scheft’s first English cookbook, “Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking.”
Before I ever tasted the babka or the challah, I tore into one of Breads’ sesame-drenched mini baguettes with its perfectly pointed prized ends. Scheft had developed these Jerusalem baguettes for the shop’s neighbor Union Square Cafe, where I was working, and twice a day one of the bakers crossed the street with a box of the treats. I was on a 15-minute break during a busy weeknight early in my tenure, and slipped a breadbasket from the kitchen, carried it up the spiral staircase, and slumped into a wobbly chair. With a pat of butter and a long swig of water, the bread provided me the energy to return to the floor with a satisfied smile. Breads quickly became my pre-shift coffee spot, mid-shift snack grab when family meal was less than ideal, and post-shift decompression stop before trekking to the subway.
And, of course, I can’t show up to a holiday dinner without its chocolate babka and challah.
In case you don’t work across the street, or live in Manhattan (or Israel), or have a generous friend who does, you can now make Breads’ goodies at home. In “Breaking Breads,” there are entire chapters on challah and babka, the basics of which may have been shared widely in the media, but never before with such a high level of detail, explanations about methodology and unique variations.
On the savory side, there are also recipes for pita that can be made on the stovetop in a cast-iron skillet, those Jerusalem baguettes and a variety of salads and spreads to enhance the breads.
If you’re into sweets, dig into five different hamantashen, two rugelach flavors, or krembos — towering swirls of marshmallow balanced on cookie bases and coated in chocolate.
Recipes rarely seen outside of Israel also make an appearance: flakey buttery malawech and dense overnight-cooked Shabbat jachnun and kubaneh, all from Yemen; and crêpe-like Moroccan mofleta drizzled in honey and eaten at the Mimouna celebration after Passover.
And no matter how unfamiliar you are with a recipe, clear instructions and step-by-step process photographs just about guarantee success in your own kitchen.
The combination of recipes derives from Scheft’s own multi-cultural background: He grew up in Israel and Denmark, studied Biology in Tel Aviv and baking in Copenhagen, trained in France, served in the army, traveled around the world, and married into a Moroccan and Yemenite family. So there’s muesli in one of his rolls, fiery green and red z’hug for dipping, and a variety of focaccia including one inspired by shakshuka with a drenching of matbucha and baked with an egg on top.
Because we’re in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot, when stuffed foods are eaten to symbolize the abundance of the harvest, I decided to test out the cheese burekas. Adapted for the home cook, the recipe uses store-bought puff pastry: I use Dufour brand, which you can easily find at Whole Foods, and which came under kosher supervision about a year ago; with butter as its main ingredient, it far surpasses the parve versions on the market.
The cheese filling is a mix of cream cheese, feta and sour cream, bound together with egg and a little flour. The beauty of the flour is that the filling doesn’t leak. Mine didn’t come out nearly as beautiful as the ones in the photographs, but they were phenomenal piping-hot straight from the oven. (A generous dusting of sesame and nigella seeds hides a multitude of sins.) You can also make the pastries ahead of time, freezing the filled triangles and then popping them in the oven as your guests arrive to the sukkah.
For Sukkot and holidays to come, “Breaking Breads” will serve me, my family and my guests well. It’s a great addition to the canon of modern Israeli cookbookery.
Gayle Squires is a food writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her path to the culinary world is paved with tap shoes, a medical degree, business consulting and travel. She has a knack for convincing chefs to give up their secret recipes. Her blog is KosherCamembert